french-semi-vowels

The Ultimate Guide to Gracefully Gliding Through French Semi-vowels

When two or more French vowels go walking, which one does the talking?

And when they do the talking, what do these vowels say?

If they’re semi-vowels, they’ll say something that sounds suspiciously like a consonant.

In fact, some of them are consonants part of the time, and some of them are consonants all of the time.

Whatever the case, semi-vowels always go walking with other vowels. If they weren’t in the company of regular vowels, you wouldn’t hear a peep out of them.

Semi-vowels are scattered liberally throughout the French language. Like the Man of a Thousand Faces, they show up in many different guises.

What are these chameleon-like creatures called semi-vowels? What do they look like? How do they sound?

Let’s find out.
 


 
Learn a foreign language with videos

Recognizing and Pronouncing French Semi-vowels

We’ll take an up-close look at favorite semi-vowel disguises in a little bit.

First, let’s ponder their nature.

Two for the price of one.

A semi-vowel is a letter (or set of letters) that combines with one or more vowels to make a one-syllable consonant-vowel sound.

One of the first words you probably learned in French, oui (yes), features a prominent semi-vowel. It sounds similar to “we” in English but uses no w to produce its w sound.

Instead, the combined sound of ou—normally similar to “ew” in English—is added to the i (“ee”) sound in such rapid succession that you get a one-syllable word. A word with both a consonant and a vowel sound, all crammed into a single syllable.

You might see semi-vowels referred to as “approximants” (short for “approximant consonants”), which are a class of sounds in phonetics.

Semi-vowels are also called “glides.” This is because you very quickly glide between the consonant and vowel sounds that form the syllable.

Pucker up and pull back.

With a few exceptions, if you were looking in a mirror while you said a semi-vowel with its accompanying vowel, you would see your lips move between a pucker position and pulled-back smile.

Or—depending on which semi-vowel is paired with which full vowel in a word—from a pulled-back position or relaxed pout to a pucker.

Either way, your mirror will show you the rapid forward-and-back lip movements of semi-vowels.

Try it with a word like oui (yes), fille (girl) or ouest (west).

If you’re not sure you’re getting it right, don’t worry. We’ll be checking out some helpful video resources in a little bit, so you can see semi-vowels in action.

Licking your lips.

When you’re learning about semi-vowels, you might see some unfamiliar phonetic lingo. Here are a few of the terms you’ll encounter the most:

Tongue Position: Palatal

A palatal sound is produced when the middle of your tongue hits the roof—of your hard palate (that’s the front part of the roof of your mouth).

Examples:

  • The “nyuh” sound in lasagna, agneau (lamb) or niño (boy)
  • The “yuh” sound in the English words yes, yellow and yap
  • The “yuh” sound of the [j] French semi-vowel in words like yacht (pronounced almost as in English) and fille (girl)
  • The tight “wuh” sound of the [ɥ] French semi-vowel in words like suisse (Swiss), t (killed), juin (June) and lueur (glimmer)

Tongue Position: Velar

A velar sound occurs when the back part of your tongue (far from the tip) touches your soft palate (the back part of the roof of your mouth). “Velum” is another name for the soft palate.

Examples:

  • The hard g of English words golf, goal and good
  • The k and the ng in the French word le parking (the parking lot)
  • The rounded “wuh” sound of the [w] semi-vowel in French words like oui (yes) and moi (me)

Labialization

Derived from the Latin word for lip, this term refers to lip positions in phonetics.

One of the most common labializations for French semi-vowels is labiovelar. In this position, the lips are rounded, like you’re puckering up for a kiss.

As noted earlier, you’ll also pull your lips back from a pucker into a slight smile while pronouncing words with the semi-vowels [w] and [ɥ].

Sound IDs in the IPA.

A common complaint of French language learners is that word spellings don’t always seem to match pronunciations.

This is where the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) comes in handy. The IPA is like an X-ray machine: it reveals the sounds underneath the letters we see.

Created in 1886, the IPA uses the same sets of symbols to show how words sound in any language across the world. Regardless of the writing system normally used for a given language, the IPA is a universal way to represent the sounds of a language.

In French, two or more letters frequently combine to make a single sound. This is true for those mysterious silent letters and especially for the multi-letter combinations often used to create semivowels.

If you’re not already familiar with the IPA and how to use it in French, check out this comprehensive French IPA guide. It’ll give you a firm foundation for understanding the IPA representations of French language sounds, including semi-vowels.

Resources for Wrangling French Semi-vowels

In the first set of resources, you’ll be introduced to semi-vowels in isolation—a laboratory setting, if you will.

In the second set, you’ll encounter them in the wild.

Phonetic footage.

  • The Sounds of French: If you watch about the first minute of this clip, you’ll get a breakdown of the three French semi-vowels—how they’re pronounced, how they look in IPA and how to distinguish them from similar sounds.
  • Pronunciation of the semivowel / ɥ /: This video by Frenchsounds focuses specifically on this particular semi-vowel, explaining its pronunciation in depth and demonstrating multiple sound combinations within the French lexicon.
  • Pronunciation of the French “yod” / j /: Also presented by Frenchsounds, this video performs the same service for the “yuh” semi-vowel sound in French.
  • Semivowels in French: This isn’t a single video, but rather a web page with links to audio and video pronunciation examples.

    When you click on one of the French words (in blue), you’re given up to four options: audio at regular speed, slowed-down audio, normal speed video, and slowed-down video. You’ll also see the IPA representation of each word.

Semi-vowels in the wild.

Once you learn about French semi-vowels, you can practice recognizing them in context. Keep your eyes and ears open, and you’ll find semi-vowels in abundance in French media.

  • Radio broadcasts and music: You can hear them in radio broadcasts, streamed through song sources such as Chérie FM and France Musique. Perhaps your own collection of French music will provide you with plenty of lyrical examples.
  • Videos: Watching videos is an especially powerful way to reinforce your recognition and pronunciation of French semi-vowels since you can both hear the sounds and see how they’re produced. FluentU has an ever-growing storehouse of music videos, television shows and other media.

    FluentU takes these real-world videos and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. This lively library is jam-packed with semi-vowels and supercharged with learning tools.

    If you’re not quite catching the pronunciation of a semi-vowel in a certain word, just use the subtitles within your current FluentU video to see and hear the same word used in other videos.

French Semi-vowels: A Systematic Sampler of Semi-vowels and Their Usage

Let’s pull together everything we’ve discussed about semi-vowel sounds with some real-life examples of French words that use them. Each section features common semi-vowel/vowel combinations, like the [wi] of oui (yes) and the [ij] of fille (girl).

We’ll test-drive a few sentences so you can practice saying the same semi-vowel combinations several times in a row.

The [w] Semi-vowel

The [w] semi-vowel is similar to the letter “w” in English. Start off with rounded lips. Keep your tongue fairly relaxed, as though you’re cooing like a dove.


[wa]

How it sounds:

A relaxed “wuh” sound followed quickly by an “ah” sound; similar to the “wa” sound at the beginning of words like watch [tʃ] in English.

How it’s spelled:

Usually spelled “oi”

French words with [wa]:

French WordIPA ReadingPart of Speech and GenderEnglish Translation
moi[mwa]pronounme
toi[twa]pronounyou
roi[ʁwa]masculine nounking
toit[twa]masculine nounroof
soif[swaf]feminine nounthirst
fois[fwa]feminine nountime (as in la première fois, the first time)
voile[vwal]feminine nounsail
voile[vwal]masculine nounveil, net fabric/netting
voilà[vwala]prepositionthere is/there are
voici[vwasi]prepositionhere is/here are

Example sentences:

Standard French: Moi, je vois le voile sur le toit.
IPA Transcription: mwa, ʒe vwa lə vwal syʁ lə twa.
English Translation: Me, I see the netting on the roof.

Standard French: Voilà la voile que la femme du roi voit à travers son voile.
IPA Transcription: vwala la vwal kə la fam dy ʁwa vwa a tʁavɛʁ sɔ̃ vwal.
English Translation: There is the sail that the king’s wife sees through her veil.


[wi]

How it sounds:

A relaxed “wuh” sound followed quickly by an “ee”/long “i” sound (like the “i” in si, if); similar to the sound of the word we [wi] in English.

How it’s spelled:

Usually spelled “oui”

French words with [wi]:

French WordIPA ReadingPart of Speech and GenderEnglish Translation
oui [ˈwi]adverb; masculine nounyes
épanoui(e)[epanwi]adjectiveblooming, blossoming
boui-boui[bwibwi]masculine noungreasy spoon; a dive (restaurant with poor-quality food)
ouïe [wi]feminine nounhearing (ability to perceive audible sounds); soundholes (of musical instrument); gills (of fish)
Louis[lwi]proper nameLouis

Note that, despite somewhat different spellings, the words l’ouïe and Louis sound identical (as seen in the IPA transcription, [lwi]).

Example sentence:

Standard French: Oui, Louis a l’ouïe à percevoir le bruit produit par l’ouïe de la guitare.
IPA Transcription: ˈwi , lwi a lwi a pɛʀsəvwaʀ lə bʀɥi pʀɔdɥi paʀ lwi də la ɡitaʀ.
English Translation: Yes, Louis has the hearing to perceive the noise produced by the soundhole of the guitar.

There’s a different semi-vowel sound, [ɥ], found in the words bruit (noise) and produit (produced). The semi-vowel [ɥ] is pronounced differently than the [w] sound in French, as we’ll explore in more detail soon.


[wɛ̃]

How it sounds:

A relaxed “wuh” sound followed quickly by a nasalized “i” (like the sound of “in” in the word fin, end).

It’s sort of like the word wan [wɑn] in English, although with a nasalized vowel. (Try saying “wan” while pinching your nose, and you’ll get the idea!)

How it’s spelled:

Usually spelled “ouin”

French words with [wɛ̃]:

French WordIPA ReadingPart of Speech and GenderEnglish Translation
pingouin[pɛ̃ɡwɛ̃]masculine nounpenguin
babouin[babwɛ̃]masculine nounbaboon
baragoiun[baʀaɡwɛ̃]masculine noungibberish

Example sentence:

Standard French: Le pingouin et le babouin parlent le baragouin.
IPA Transcription: lə pɛ̃ɡ̃ e lə bab̃ paʁl lə baʀaɡ̃.
English Translation: The penguin and the baboon speak gibberish.


[wɛ]

How it sounds:

A relaxed “wuh” sound followed quickly by an open, unrounded “e.” Try substituting the “l” at the start of the French word les (the) with a “w”; this semi-vowel combo has a similar “eh” sound.

If you combine the initial sounds of the English words wed or wet (minus the final consonant) and way, you’ll be close to the sound of this particular semi-vowel combination.

How it’s spelled:

Usually spelled oue; sometimes spelled ouais

French words with [wɛ]:

French WordIPA ReadingPart of Speech and GenderEnglish Translation
ouest[wɛst]adjectivewest
oued[wɛd]masculine nounwadi
ouais[ˈwɛ]exclamationyeah (informal of oui, yes)

Example sentence:

Standard French: Ouais, il y avait un oued à l’ouest.
IPA Transcription: ˈ, il j- avɛ œ̃ d a lst.
English Translation: Yeah, there was a wadi in the west.


The [ɥ] Semi-vowel

The [ɥ] sound uses about the same lip position as the [w] semi-vowel.

However, instead of keeping your tongue relaxed like you’re cooing or saying tout (all), your tongue should be tight against your hard palate. Think of saying the word tu (you) or su (known).


[ɥi]

How it sounds:

A tight “wuh” sound followed quickly by an “ee” sound (long “i,” like si, if).

Try saying the English word we as if you were very angry, with a snarl; that’s getting close to the tight, palatal pronunciation you need.

How it’s spelled:

Usually spelled “ui” 

French words with [ɥi]:

French WordIPA ReadingPart of Speech and GenderEnglish Translation
lui[lɥi]pronounhim
suisse[sɥis]adjectiveSwiss
huit[ˈɥi(t)]cardinal numbereight
huile[ɥil]feminine nounoil
suis[sɥi]verb(I) am
suif[sɥif]masculine nountallow, suet
pluie[plɥi]feminine nounrain
ruisseau[ʁɥiso]masculine nounstream
ennui[ɑ̃nɥi]masculine nounboredom

Example sentences:

Standard French: Comme lui, je suis suisse.
IPA Transcription: kɔm lɥi, ʒe sɥi sɥis.
English Translation: Like him, I am Swiss.

Standard French: L’huile et la pluie coulent au ruisseau.
IPA Transcription: lɥil e la plɥi kul o ʁɥiso.
English Translation: The oil and the rain flow into the stream.


[ɥe]

How it sounds:

A tight “wuh” sound followed quickly by an “ay” sound (as in vrai, true).

How it’s spelled:

Usually spelled “ué” or “uée”

French words with [ɥe]:

French WordIPA ReadingPart of Speech and GenderEnglish Translation
habitué(e)[abitɥe]adjectiveused to; habituated
tué(e)[tɥe]past participlekilled
buée[bɥe]feminine nounmist
ruée[ʁɥe]feminine nounrush

Example sentence:

Standard French: Il était habit à la re vers la be.
IPA Transcription: il etɛ abitɥe a la ʁɥe vɛʀ la bɥe.
English Translation: He was used to the rush into the mist.


[ɥɛ̃]

How it sounds:

A tight “wuh” sound followed quickly by a nasalized “i” (as in fin, end).

How it’s spelled:

Usually spelled “uin”

French words with [ɥɛ̃]:

French WordIPA ReadingPart of Speech and GenderEnglish Translation
juin[ʒɥɛ̃]masculine nounJune (month)

Example sentence:

Standard French: J’ai bu le vin à la fin de juin.
IPA Transcription: ʒe by lə vɛ̃ a la vɛ̃ də ʒɥɛ̃.
English Translation: I drank the wine at the end of June.


[ɥɛ]

How it sounds:

A tight “wuh” sound followed quickly by a short “e” sound—like the “è” in the word accès (access).

How it’s spelled:

Usually spelled “ue”; sometimes spelled “uè”

French words with [ɥɛ]:

French WordIPA ReadingPart of Speech and GenderEnglish Translation
duel[dɥɛl]masculine nounduel
muet[mɥɛ]adjectivemute; unable to speak
Suède[sɥɛd]feminine nounSweden (country)

Example sentence:

Standard French: L’homme muet vient de la Sde pour se battre en duel.
IPA Transcription: lɔm mɥɛ vjɛ̃ də la sɥɛd puʀ sə batʀ ɑ̃ dɥɛl.
English Translation: The mute man is coming from Sweden to fight in a duel.


[ɥœ]

How it sounds:

A tight “wuh” sound followed quickly by a tight, rounded “e” sound, like the “eu” in the word feu (fire).

How it’s spelled:

Usually spelled “ueu”

French words with [ɥœ]:

French WordIPA ReadingPart of Speech and GenderEnglish Translation
sueur[sɥœʁ]feminine nounsweat
lueur[lɥœʁ]feminine nounglimmer

Example sentence:

Standard French: Ma sœur, qui a peur, se ressent la lueur de sueur à la peau.
IPA Transcription: ma sœʁ, ki a pœʁ, sə ʀ(ə)sɑ̃ la lɥœʁ də sɥœʁ a la po.
English Translation: My sister, who is afraid, feels the glimmer of sweat on her skin.


The [j] Semi-vowel

This semi-vowel is also known as the “yod” in French, due to the “yuh” sound it makes.

You’ll often see it spelled with a “y.” A single or double “l”—flanked by the vowels “i” and “e,” and sometimes “a”—also produces the [j] sound.


[ˈj]

How it sounds:

A “yuh” sound in the initial position, followed by various vowels.

Pronounced similarly to the initial sound of the words yoga, yacht, yellow and yes in English.

How it’s spelled:

Usually spelled with a “y” at the beginning of the word

French words with [ˈj]:

French WordIPA TranscriptionPart of Speech and GenderEnglish Translation
yaourt[ˈjauʀt]masculine nounyogurt
yoga[ˈjɔɡa]masculine nounyoga
Yannick[ˈjanik]proper namemasculine / feminine diminutive of Yann, the Breton name for “John”

Example sentence:

Standard French: Après la classe de yoga, Yannick mange du yaourt.
IPA Transcription: apʀɛ la klɑs də ˈjɔɡa, ˈjanik mɑ̃ʒ dy ˈjauʀt.
English Translation: After yoga class, Johnny eats some yogurt.


[je]

How it sounds:

A “yuh” before a long “a” sound; pronounced sort of like the word yay in English.

How it’s spelled:

Can be spelled “yer,” “yez” or “yé”

French words with [je]:

French WordIPA ReadingPart of Speech and GenderEnglish Translation
payer/
payez/
payé
[peje]verb(to) pay
effrayer/
effrayez/
effrayé
[efʀeje]verb(to) frighten, to scare
essayer/
essayez/
essayé
[eseje]verb(to) try
rayer/
rayez/
rayé
[ʁeje]verb(to) scratch, (to) cross out
soyez[swaje]verbbe (present imperative & present subjunctive)

Example sentences:

Standard French: Il a essa de payer avec sa carte de crédit.
IPA Transcription: il a eseje a peje avɛk sa kaʁt də kʁedi.
English Translation: He tried to pay with his credit card.

Standard French: Ne soyez pas trop effra à essayer!
IPA Transcription: nə swaje pa tʁo efʁeje a eseje!
English Translation: Don’t be too scared to try!


[jɑ̃]

How it sounds:

A “yuh” sound followed by a nasalized “a,” as in the French word an (year).

How it’s spelled:

The words ending in “yant” are often present participles; words ending in “ient” are usually nouns or adjectives

French words with [jɑ̃]:

French WordIPA ReadingPart of Speech and GenderEnglish Translation
payant[pɛjɑ̃]present participlepaying
ayant[ɛjɑ̃]present participlehaving
effrayant[efʁɛjɑ̃]present participlefrightening
client[klijɑ̃]masculine nouncustomer/
guest/
patron/
client
ingrédient[ɛ̃ɡʁedjɑ̃]masculine nouningredient
patient[pasjɑ̃]masculine noun/adjectivepatient (of doctor)/
patient (willing to wait)

Example sentence:

Standard French: En ayant de l’argent, ils devient des clients payants.
IPA Transcription: ɑ̃ ɛjɑ̃ də laʀʒɑ̃, il dəvjɛ̃ de klĩ pɛ̃.
English Translation: By having money, they become paying clients.


[ij]

How it sounds:

A long “i” sound (like “ee” in English), followed quickly by a slight “yuh” sound

How it’s spelled:

Usually spelled “ille”

French words with [ij]:

French WordIPA ReadingPart of Speech and GenderEnglish Translation
fille[fij]feminine noungirl, daughter
famille[famij]feminine nounfamily
grille[ɡʁij]feminine noungate, grid
coquille[kɔkij]feminine nounshell

Example sentence:

Standard French: La fille de la famille collectionne des coquilles.
IPA Transcription: la fij də la famij kɔlɛksjɔn de kɔkij.
English Translation: The daughter of the family collects shells.

Note that there are several exceptions to “ille” sounding like [ij], including la ville (city), le village (village), mille (thousand) and tranquille (tranquil). 

A complete list of exceptions can be found at ThoughtCo.


[uj]

How it sounds:

An “oo” sound (as in ou [or] or [where]), followed quickly by a slight “yuh” sound (and, possibly, another vowel).

How it’s spelled:

Usually spelled “ouill”; often followed by an “e,” an “a” or an “é”

French words with [uj]:

French WordIPA ReadingPart of Speech and
Gender
English Translation
bouille[buj]feminine nounface (as in the English slang term “mug”)
bouillabaisse[bujabɛs]feminine nounfish soup
mouillé[muje]adjectivewet (from the rain); tearful
mouillages[mujaʒ]masculine
plural noun
moorings

Example sentence:

Standard French: J’ai vu ta bouille mouillée après avoir mangé la dernière bouillabaisse.
IPA Transcription: ʒe vy ta buj muje apʁɛ kə ʒavɛ mɑ̃ʒe la dɛʁnjɛʁ bujabɛs.
English Translation: I saw your tearful mug after I had eaten the last of the fish soup.

Note that even though “ouill” contains the word oui, it’s not pronounced [wi].

You can slip a virtual nickel in the nickelodeon and practice the [uj] semi vowel combination by singing along to the title track of Graziella de Michèle’s 1993 album, Les terres mouillés.”


[ɛj]

How it sounds:

A sound similar to the English “ay” (as in pay), followed quickly by a slight “yuh” sound.

How it’s spelled:

Usually spelled “eille”; sometimes spelled “eil”

French words with [ɛj]:

French WordIPA ReadingPart of Speech and
Gender
English Translation
bouteille[butɛj]feminine nounbottle
oreille[ɔʁɛj]feminine nounear
abeille[abɛj]feminine nounbee
pareil, pareille[paʁɛj]adjective
(masculine, feminine)
the same, such(like)
sommeil[sɔmɛj]masculine nounsleep
vermeil[vɛʁmɛj]adjective; masculine
noun
bright or ruby red;
gold-plated silver gilt (jewelry)

Example sentences:

Standard French: Pendant mon sommeil, une abeille est entrée à l’oreille.
IPA Transcription: pɑ̃dɑ̃ mɔ̃ sɔmɛj, yn abɛj a ɑ̃tʀe a lɔʁɛj.
English Translation: During my sleep, a bee entered my ear.

Standard French: Cette bouteille vermeille est pareil à celle-ci d’or.
IPA Transcription: sɛt butɛj vɛʁmɛj ɛ paʁɛj a sɛlsi dɔʀ.
English Translation: This ruby red bottle is the same as this gold one here.


[aj]

How it sounds:

A short “ah” sound (as in the “a” in la, the), followed by a quick, slight “yuh” sound.

How it’s spelled:

Usually spelled “ail”; sometimes spelled “aille”

French words with [aj]:

French WordIPA ReadingPart of Speech and GenderEnglish Translation
aille[aj]verbsubjunctive form of aller, to go
bail [baj]masculine nounlease
ail[aj]masculine noungarlic
vitrail[vitʁaj]masculine nounstained-glass window

Example sentences:

Standard French: Gérard a écrit le bail devant le vitrail.
IPA Transcription: ʒeʁaʁ a ekʁi lə baj d(ə)vɑ̃ lə vitʁaj.
English Translation: Gerard wrote the lease in front of the stained-glass window.

Standard French: Il faut que j’aille pour acheter l’ail.
IPA Transcription: il fo kə ʒaj puʁ aʃte laj.
English Translation: I must go to buy garlic.


[œj]

How it sounds:

Open, rounded “o” (like the “eu” in peu, little) quickly followed by a slight “yuh” sound.

How it’s spelled:

Usually spelled “euille” in French

French words with [œj]:

French WordIPA ReadingPart of Speech and GenderEnglish Translation
feuille[fœj]feminine nounleaf, sheet (of paper)
portefeuille[pɔʁtəfœj]masculine nounwallet, portfolio

 Example sentence:

Standard French: J’ai trouvé la petite feuille dans mon portefeuille.
IPA Transcription: ʒe tʁuve la p(ə)tit fœj a mɔ̃ pɔʁtəfœj.
English Translation: I found the little slip of paper in my wallet.

 

Go on, glide along now with your semi vowels.

You’ve seen what they really sound like—now say them with confidence!

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.

Experience French immersion online!

Comments are closed.